Interview: Matina Zisiadou – Coordinator of the ‘’Aware’’ campaign

Nobody becomes a refugee by choice. No one leaves his land and life, nobody leaves his for no reason. Desperate people from all over the world-either because of war or due to poverty- look for a better life, safer living conditions, a future that will be different than the one in their countries. Cyprus can be a homeland for refugees/immigrants, but their country of origin will always be in their heart and mind.

Campaign “Aware” is a Pancyprian campaign that aims at the information of the public and also and to raise awareness for refugees and immigrants.. What exactly does “Aware” do? What does this campaign achieve through its action? The coordinator of the campaign Matina Zisiadou talks to the newspaper “Haravgi” and unfolds aspects of stories of refugees/immigrants, that maybe we can’t understand, or we just reject them.

This is the second year of campaign “Aware” for refugees and immigrants. What is the effect of your campaign to the public?

Last year ended with successful results on the information for refugees and immigrants. Our campaign travelled all over Cyprus, spreading messages of acceptance and diversity. For this year, we have set higher goals.  We want to intensify our efforts in the field of information of the public, emphasizing especially on young people. Our purpose is to bring together Cypriots, refugees and immigrants, to meet, learn and understand each other..

Racism and xenophobia exist and get bigger just because ignorance and misinformation exist for those two vulnerable populations. We want to change this perceptions. Through accurate information and arguments we try to redeem stereotypes and prejudices. We are working on this in many ways, such as through presentations and workshops, informative events, production of documentaries, through our presence in Cypriot media and social networks. We do the best possible to provide adequate and accurate information. We are very pleased that the majority of Cypriots are informed and aware of the problems that refugees and immigrants are dealing with.

Can refugees and immigrants become equal members of our society? What are the perceptions on international and local level?

The integration of refugees and immigrants in our society is a very important part that we want to emphasize on through our campaign. It is self-evident that though integration policies, we can combat stereotypes that are created in both ways.  In Cyprus, integration programs for third country nationals are implemented from many municipalities, aiming to their smooth integration. All these programs, like ours, are co-funded by the Asylum, Integration and Migration fund and the Republic of Cyprus. Through these programs, refugees and immigrants have the chance to learn our language, to develop their skills, and search for a job and better living conditions, to feel welcomed and not foreigners.

I think that in an extraordinary effort is being made by public bodies and institutions. Countries that adopt a holistic policy towards immigrants do not face them as a threat. On the contrary, they have developed a culture where both locals and non-locals co-exist and cooperate for the common good of the country. They face them in a very humanitarian way, no matter the nationality, religion, political or any other beliefs. These successful examples are not only seen in Europebut also in Australia and Canada.

Therefore, it is not possible to leave those people living emarginated. We have to make them part of our lives.. It is very important to understand that multiculturalism is wealth, not just for our society but also for us, as people.

Through your campaign, you are emphasizing on the lives of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants. Do you find correspondence in those people? Do they want to take part in your campaigns?

We are in a constant contact with refugees and immigrants. This year we have cooperation with the Association of Recognized Refugees in Cyprus. It is an effort that we do to become more extrovert as a campaign, by bringing to a direct contact these people with Cypriots. We get a positive feedback from them; they feel that they are accepted by our society. Our plan is to involve them in as many actions as possible, especially to those that have a broad attendance, such as the event we are organizing on the occasion of the International Refugee Day in June.

I suppose that you have seen and heard shocking stories from these people. What has been more touching to you?

The experiences carried by refugees and immigrants are unique but at the same time familiar. Every time I hear a story, it makes me think that we, as Cypriots share common experiences, both as refugees and immigrants. There is a phrase that really impressed me. Last year during our campaign, we prepared some documentaries with real stories of an immigrant and a refugee. What touched me was a phrase of Gamini, an immigrant from Sri Lanka who lives and works in Cyprus. He said: “I need money, but what I need more is respect from the people”, nothing more, nothing less. People ask for our respect and our appreciation. I believe that this is something that it can be easily done without much effort from us. By learning about their habits and their way of life, we get closer to them and we eliminate our prejudices.

How many times have you thought that what you do is worth it?

Although that we live in a multicultural county, I feel that there not everyone is showing acceptance to the immigrants and refugees. I feel very lucky that we are a part of this effort to promote acceptance and diversity. We are a team that tries to remain up-to-date with these issues. We want to get better in order to contribute effectively in the battle of any xenophobic beliefs. It gives us hope that the messages that we get are mostly positive. Every time we conduct a seminar or an activity and we see the feedback from the people in what we do, we understand that it is totally worth it.

The fact of unaccompanied children is a shocking story on its own. Do many children arrive in Cyprus unaccompanied?

It really is a shocking story, especially is we think that one in two refugees is a minor. These children have experienced war, many of them have lost both of their parents or they are forced to leave them without knowing when and if they will ever see them again. We know how hard and difficult this is for all the people, let alone a child who survives this kind of journey on its own. In Cyprus we currently have 154 unaccompanied children.

Due to the fact that unaccompanied children are a vulnerable group of people in the already vulnerable group of refugees, there is a need for further support. School and education have a primary role in this purpose. The initiative of the Pedagogical Institute in Cyprus is remarkable. It implements a program that has to do with the education of the teachers on the handling of children who have experienced migration. Finally, I have to mention that the contribution of the organization Hope for Children is very important. It provides sheltering, food, education and psychological support to these children.

Can their world be ours? Can we create a society without discriminations?

This totally depends on us. It is in our hands to let them in our world and to become a part of theirs. We have to process all the information that we receive very carefully and to be able to evaluate them. As I said before, ignorance and misinformation are the reasons behind racist beliefs. We have to show acceptance to these people. This is the only way to build a society, a world without discriminations.